Legislative Budget Proposals Salvage Many Island Programs

By MANDY LOCKE

There's potentially good news coming out of Beacon Hill this week for the Island - as good as financial news can get in a climate that brought a $3 billion revenue shortfall.

Island public schools, the Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project and Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard could escape merciless cuts this year, avoiding dire hits that the governor's proposed budget announced in February.

But a showdown awaits the state Senate and House of Representatives.

The Senate's $23.5 billion proposed budget, released Wednesday, soars $100 million higher than the House of Representatives proposal unveiled last week. The Senate Ways and Means Committee pulled $175 million out of the state's rainy day funds as well and proposed $500 million in new user fees. The two branches must rationalize their differences in the coming weeks.

Island schools, whose leaders as of two months ago braced themselves for 27 per cent cuts, will mostly escape these drastic reductions.

"We're feeling a lot better, but nothing's sure yet. The governor had absolutely thrown us into a panic," said Margaret Serpa, high school administrator. Those fears sent high school students to annual town meetings with picket signs, begging voters to funnel Chapter 70 money directed to the municipalities back into the regional schools' budgets. Both legislative branches killed the governor's indirect funding mechanism.

Both the House and Senate allocated $2.6 million to the regional high school - of which about $450,000 will be funneled to the Martha's Vineyard Public Charter School for tuition costs for 33 students. Officials already trimmed their $2.2 million operating budget by ten per cent before town meeting season - in hopes of better swallowing the potentially devastating cuts ahead.

"[The House and Senate's proposed budgets] are higher than what we budgeted. It's still just a proposal, but if those numbers prevail, we'll be okay," said Dr. Kriner Cash, superintendent of Martha's Vineyard Public Schools.

Regional high school transportation reimbursements are still a question mark for school officials. In years past, the state fully reimbursed over $700,000 in busing costs to the regional school districts. That reimbursement level could drop as much as 50 per cent next year - placing several hundred thousand dollars' worth of responsibility on local coffers.

Chapter 70 aid to the Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury schools registers about 15 per cent lower than previous years, trims Dr. Cash said are harmful but not dire. Differences in House and Senate allocations swing anywhere between three and five per cent for these schools - the more gracious allotments coming from the Senate.

Also on the education front, legislators saved Community Partnership for Children (CPC) and the Massachusetts Family Network (MFN) programs. Through the Vineyard Affordable Child Care Project, CPC gave $360,000 last year in direct child care subsidies to 60 Island families earning less than 125 per cent of the state's median income as well as loans and continuing education grants to local day care providers. MFN offered a $170,000 grant to Martha's Vineyard Community Services to fund a range of family-related discussion groups as well as a monthly brochure delivered to 750 Island families with children under the age of five.

Gov. Romney completely slashed the $84 million state-wide programs in his budget version - shifting a meager $10 million into the Office of Child Care Services budget for continued child care subsidies for low-income households.

Both the House and Senate offered the programs a combined $74 million and mandated that the funds by controlled in the Department of Education instead of the Office of Child Care Services.

"It's extremely important that this remained in the Department of Education. It will continue to promote school readiness for children and will allow the early childhood community [on the Island] to come together and make decisions based on the needs of the local community," said Pat Ingalls, an administrator for VACCP.

While the legislature's handling of these early childhood programs seems much more promising, early childhood officials know that the bleak financial climate will inevitably scar their programs. VAACP's funds plummeted $200,000 in the last two years - forcing them to end their summer program this year. Nearly 20 children whose parents relied on the subsidized care during summer months when their day care programs close must find other care this season.

"This is not a happy time for families and children in Massachusetts. Our program will never be the same. We're having to reevaluate how we spend our money," Ms. Ingalls said, noting that they anticipate another $50,000 cut this year, forced by the 10 per cent trim in the legislature's budget proposals.

The future of Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard seems the most uncertain of Island programs. The House slashed from $11 million to $3 million a line item that funds state-wide family planning clinics as well as rape prevention programs and other female health-related programs. They also stripped language from the line item which earmarked the Family Health Services funds toward those specific programs. The Senate upped the line item to $9 million and reinstated direction language.

Sheldon Barr, executive director for the Health Care of Southeastern Massachusetts, which operates 11 family planning clinics in the state and partners with five others in Massachusetts, said the final funding levels will likely be somewhere in between. His agency usually receives about 40 per cent of the total line item, $4.4 million.

Coupled with these approaching hits, changes to MassHealth eligibility standards over the last year will eat away at the reproductive health clinics' revenues. Many of the clinics' clients no longer receive the public insurance due to recent revisions aimed to pull some residents off the state-funded health insurance.

"Fortunately, [Family Planning of Martha's Vineyard] is one of the only clinics in the region with broad-based community support. They wouldn't be here to the extent that they are without that support," Mr. Barr said, referring to the Friends of Family Planning art show this weekend that raised $5,000 last year to help offset effects from state and federal budget cuts to their $200,000 annual operating budget.

While the budget proposal released by the Senate Ways and Means Committee did not include amendments dealing with Medicaid reimbursement rates for Windemere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center and expanded eligibility to receive state subsidy for the proposed Island Health Plan, Cape and Islands senator Robert O'Leary will file amendments to the budget today to include both of these adjustments.

The higher Medicaid reimbursement rates for long-term patients in Windemere would take into consideration the additional costs associated with running a facility in a geographically isolated area. Representative Eric T. Turkington said the amendment would funnel about a half million more dollars a year into their operating budget.

The proposed Island Health Plan could tap into a state-wide Insurance Partnership program, which offers direct subsidies to small employers and their employees who offer private insurance. The amendment raises eligibility thresholds for Cape and Island residents from 200 per cent of federal poverty level to 300 per cent of federal poverty level. The amendment also allows the private insurance company contracted with the grassroots Island Health Plan to offer group membership rates to people earning up to 400 per cent of federal poverty level - $73,000 for a family of four.

After the state senators debate proposed amendments to the budget early next week, a joint Senate and House committee must rationalize differences in their drafts in the coming weeks.

Governor Romney may then veto specific line items.

All vetoes are subject to potential overrides in the House and Senate.